Sacred Symbols: The Lily

I decided a week ago to write a post about the symbolism of flowers when crocuses, hyacinth, and daffodils—the heralds of spring—began to appear here in Iowa City. The use of flowers as symbols in sacred art has been an interest of mine for some time.  It took off in 1998 when I played an unwitting part in a remarkable coincidence involving a rose. For one of my friends, that flower represented an answer to a prayer.

A Purple Rose  The story in a nutshell, is this. My friend’s job was ending so I decided to give her a rose as a sign of friendship and support. I stopped at a florist to buy one long stemmed rose and have it wrapped in paper, on my way to say goodbye to her. When I presented the rose, my friend looked stunned and was silent for what seemed like minutes. Then she asked, “Is that a purple rose?”  I nodded yes and said apologetically, “But it was supposed to be red.” The flower looked red when I selected it. The lighting in the flower shop must have tricked my eyes. My friend choked up and, with tears welling in her eyes, said, “I’ll talk with you later.” I left, perplexed.

A week later, I received a handwritten note in which my friend explained that she and her prayer group were praying for a terminally ill man.  Among their petitions, the group asked St. Therese of Lisieux to intercede with God on their friend’s behalf. Seeking reassurance, they also asked St. Therese to give a sign to confirm that their prayers were heard. Unknown to me, the purple rose is St. Therese’s emblem (photo 1) and the flower I presented was amazingly the sign they asked for. Growing up in a Lutheran denomination that dismissed prayers to saints as idolatry, I knew nothing of St. Therese of Lisieux or her attribute. As far as I was concerned, the purple rose was a mistake!


1. St. Therese with Purple Roses, Basilica of St. Therese, Lisieux, France

I could easily see how that purple rose and its timing rendered my friend speechless. The power of the coincidence boggled my mind too. It shook some long-held beliefs and opened me to a sense of wonder, which has only intensified with time, about the astounding scope of humanity’s unseen interconnections. These days, I find myself wondering, “Who else in other places, times, and religious traditions found divine presence in a flower?  Did Hera and Venus answer the prayers of ancient Greeks with flowers too? Is that how lilies and roses came to symbolize these goddesses?”  The mystery in these flowers, no less than their sweet scent, draws me to the garden.

In today’s post we’ll investigate the symbolic use of lilies in Christian iconography.  I’ve learned that floral symbolism can be complex. The lily, for example, has multiple associations with Mary, Joseph, the Archangel Gabriel, virgin saints and Easter, to name just a few, as well as multiple meanings.  As with other posts on this blog, I’ll illustrate the narrative with photos of stained glass, sculpture and painting that I’ve taken at cathedrals, churches, and museums on both sides of the Atlantic.


2. Lilies in Cloister Window, Gloucester Cathedral, England

Lilies and the Annunciation   On March 25th Christians of various denominations—Roman Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalian, and others—celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation. The holiday commemorates the Archangel Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, described in Luke’s gospel,  when the angel announces that Mary will give birth to a boy. Mary asks how a virgin could conceive a child and Gabriel responds, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy….”  Tradition has it that Mary conceived Jesus at that very moment. The white lily, symbolizing purity and chastity, has long been tied to this episode (photo 2, above).  How did it become one of Mary’s attributes?

As with many questions involving the evolution of symbols, the answer is not entirely clear. It seems that early Christian artists chose not to use the lily to suggest Mary’s virginity. Raffaela Fazio Smith, in a series of informative articles she wrote for the Global Dispatches, notes that a fresco in the catacomb of Priscilla near Rome, dated to the 3rd century, is the oldest representation of the Annunciation in art. It shows Mary without a veil and with her hair down. Unmarried women wore their hair that way at the time so her hairstyle symbolizes virginity. Lilies don’t appear in the scene, and there’s probably a good reason for it.

At the time of Christ and for many years later, the lily was popularly tied to the Greek goddess Hera whom the Romans called Juno. Hera was a major figure in the Greek and Roman panoply—the queen of the Olympian gods—and her cult would have been active throughout the Roman Empire in the first three or four centuries of the Common Era. She was known as the patron of marriage and women, and one classical poet called her the “Mother of all.” Artists sometimes depicted Hera with a lily to distinguish her from other goddesses, as in a 1st century BCE frieze from Italy, now at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. The sculpture shows Hera holding a staff topped by a stylized lily (photo 3).


3. Hera (center) in Procession of Deities Frieze, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, MD

The connection between Hera and lilies bears a brief description. It stems from a myth that’s relevant for linguists and star gazers alike. One version of the story has Zeus tricking Hera, his wife, into nursing the infant Herakles (i.e., Hercules) late one night. Herakles is Zeus’ son, born by a woman named Alcmene. When Hera discovers the trick, startled and upset she pulls the babe away from her breast. Her milk continues to spill and, according to legend, the droplets that fell to earth became lilies. Those that dispersed into the night sky formed the Milky Way. It’s worth noting that gala, the Greek word for milk, is the root for the English words galaxy and galactic. Similarly, galaxie is the French word for the Milky Way.

CHA Annunciation Snip

4. Annunciation Roundel, Life of Mary Window, Chartres Cathedral, France

Ms. Fazio Smith wrote in one of her articles that the lily began to appear in the 14th century as a symbol for Mary’s purity in painted Annunciation scenes produced by Italian workshops. It’s possible that French artists started the trend about a century earlier, perhaps as an allusion both to Mary’s chastity and her growing stature as Christianity’s Queen of Heaven. A roundel in the Life of Mary window at Chartres Cathedral, dating to the early 1200’s, depicts a tall vase, apparently containing lilies, standing between Gabriel and Mary (photo 4, above). About 30 years later, artists who designed the north rose window at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris depicted Mary holding in her right hand what appears to be a lily plant with three white blooms (photos 5 and 6).

NDP-North Rose

5. North Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

NDP-Mary & Christ Child

6. Mary and Christ Child, North Rose Window, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, France

In a similar vein, Pere Oller carved and painted a large retablo altar piece in the early 1400’s for the Cathedral of Vic, north of Barcelona in Catalonia. It contains an Annunciation panel with a lily and vase prominently placed in the foreground between Gabriel and Mary (photos 7 and 8).


7. Retablo by Pere Oller with Annunciation Panel at Lower Left, Vic Cathedral, Catalonia, Spain (click to enlarge)


8. Annunciation Panel, Retablo by Pere Oller, Vic Cathedral, Catalonia, Spain

Altar pieces like the one in Vic and similar depictions of the lily in late medieval paintings eventually became models for the 19th and 20th century artists who designed stained glass Annunciation scenes for Gloucester Cathedral in England, Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City, and the Riverside Church in New York (photos 9–11).


9. Mary with Lilies in Vase, Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, England


10. Annunciation Window, Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame of Quebec, Quebec City, Canada


11. Annunciation Roundel, The Riverside Church, New York City, NY

Gabriel and the Lily  Since Gabriel appears with Mary in most Annunciation scenes, the lily and a scepter symbolizing divine authority often appear as the Archangel’s main attributes. Examples abound, as in a window at St. Matthew’s Church (now a public library) in Quebec City where he holds a royal scepter in his left hand with an adjacent lily, and roses surround Mary, perhaps symbolizing her reputed perfection (photo 12). In a window at All Saints Cathedral in Milwaukee lilies distinguish Gabriel from the Archangel Uriel with whom he is paired (photo 13).


12. Gabriel and Mary, St. Matthew’s Church, Quebec City, Canada

ASM-Gabriel & Uriel Detail

13. Gabriel (left) and Uriel, All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee, WI

Joseph and the Lily  We’ll close this post with a look at an early 20th century window in the St. Joseph chapel at St. Paul’s Cathedral in St. Paul, Minnesota. I like it especially for the subtle connections it makes. The window displays a tall flowering lily plant in an ornate vase. A long scroll inscribed with a Latin verse entwines the plant (photos 14 and 15). The inscription reads, “Justus Germinabit Sicut Lilium et Florebit in Aeternum Ante Dominum.”

STP-Lily Window

14. Lily Window, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, MN

What motivated the artist? Certainly the traditional image of a lily in a vase is a common source of inspiration and inscribed scrolls often appear in Annunciation scenes, typically bearing Gabriel’s “Ave Maria” salutation. But I’ve not seen a scroll embedded in a lily plant anywhere else. By the window’s placement in a chapel dedicated to Joseph, the lily could symbolize the saint himself, his care for Mary and Jesus as a child, or one of his other qualities. I think it’s the latter.

STP-Lily Detail

15. Lily Window Detail, St. Paul’s Cathedral, St. Paul, MN

The inscription loosely translated in English means, “May justice sprout like lilies and bloom before God into eternity.” Its source is a lovely Gregorian chant written in the 9th or 10th century. The window connects Joseph’s reputation as a model of fairness—given his decision to wed Mary even though she was pregnant when they married—to a prayer for the propagation of justice sung by medieval monks. A window at St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal supports the connection between Joseph and justice (photo 16). It declares him to be tres juste, “very just,” and invites us to follow Joseph’s lead and be the answer to a prayer. [Use this link to listen to the chant:].


16. Tres Juste Rosette, St. Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

Copyright 2017, Michael J. Klug;; March 25, 2017

2 thoughts on “Sacred Symbols: The Lily

    • Wags: I knew about the lily’s use as an attribute for Mary, Joseph, and Gabriel. I also knew about its association with Easter. Beyond that, the article is the product of recent research. For example, I recalled that I saw a lily in the St. Joseph chapel in the St. Paul Cathedral. But I didn’t know the meaning of the Latin inscription on the scroll. I googled the Latin phrase and found its origin in a Gregorian chant. Learning of the lily’s association with justice reminded me of the Tres Juste window I saw in Montreal. I enjoy the research so much because one thing quite literally leads to (or reminds me of) another. I knew nothing about Hera and the lily and Milky Way. When I read the myth, it prompted me to look back at my photos from the Walters Art Gallery and there (wow!) the lily appeared on Hera’s staff. It’s fun to see the connections emerge as I work!

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